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Old English Dialects. Linguistic Situation

§ 100. The Germanic tribes who settled in Britain in the 5th and 6th c. spoke closely related tribal dialects belonging to the West Ger­manic subgroup. Their common origin and their separation from other related tongues as well as their joint evolution in Britain transformed them eventually into a single tongue, English. Yet, at the early stages of their development in Britain the dialects remained disunited. On the one hand, the OE dialects acquired certain common features which distinguished them from continental Germanic tongues; on the other hand, they displayed growing regional divergence. The feudal system was setting in and the dialects were entering a new phase; tribal dialectal division was superseded by geographical division, in other words, tribal dialects were transformed into local or regional dialects.

The following four principal OE dialects are commonly distinguished: Kentish, a dialect spoken in the area known now as Kent and Surrey and in the Isle of Wight. It had developed from the tongue of the Jufes and Frisians.

West Saxon, the main dialect of the Saxon group, spoken in the rest of England south of the Thames and the Bristol Channel, except Wales and Cornwall, where Celtic tongues were preserved. Other Saxon dialects in England have not survived in written form and are not known to modern scholars.

Mercian, a dialect derived from the speech of southern Angles and spoken chiefly in the kingdom of Mercia, that is, in the central region, from the Thames to the Humber.

Northumbrian, another Anglian dialect, spoken from the Humber north to the river Forth (hence the name — North-Humbrian).

The distinction between Mercian and Northumbrian as local OE dialects testifies to the new foundations of the dialectal division: region­al in place of tribal, since according to the tribal division they represent one dialect, Anglian.

The boundaries between the dialects were uncertain and probably Movable, The dialects passed into one another imperceptibly and dialectal forms were freely borrowed from one dialect into another; however, information is scarce and mainly pertains to the later part of the OE period. Throughout this period the dialects enjoyed relative equality; none of them was the dominant form of speech, each being the main type used over a limited area.

England in the Old English period

As mentioned above, by the 8th c. the centre of English culture had shifted to Northumbria, which must have brought the Northumbrian dialect to the fore; yet, most of the writing at that time was done in Latin or, perhaps, many OE texts have perished. In the 9th c. the polit­ical and cultural centre moved to Wessex. Culture and education made great progress there; it is no wonder that the West Saxon dialect has been preserved in a greater number of texts than all the other OE dia­lects put together. Towards the 11th c. the written form of the West Saxon dialect developed into a bookish type of language, which, prob­ably, served as the language of writing for all English-speaking people.

§ 101. It follows from the above description that the changes in the linguistic situation justify the distinction of two historical periods. In Early OE from the 5th to the 7th c. the would-be English language consisted of a group of spoken tribal dialects having neither a written nor a dominant form. At the time of written OE the dialects had changed from tribal to regional; they possessed both an oral and a writ­ten form and were no longer equal; in the domain of writing the West Saxon dialect prevailed over its neighbours. (Alongside OE dialects a foreign language, Latin, was widely used in writing.)



1. What languages were spoken in the British Isles prior to the Ger­manic invasion? Which of their descendants have survived today?

2. What historical events account for the influence of Latin on OE?

3. Describe the linguistic situation in Britain before and after the Germanic settlement.

4. Explain the origin of the following place-names:. Britain, Scot­land, Great Britain, Bretagne, England, Sussex, Essex, Middlesex, Wessex, Northumberland, Wales, Cornwall.

5. The OE language is often called Anglo-Saxon. Why is this term not fully justified?

6. Why can we regard the group of OE dialects as a single language despite their differences, which continued to grow in later OE? What binds them together?


Chapter VI

Runic Inscriptions

§ 102. The records of OE writing embrace a variety of matter: they are dated in different centuries, represent various local dialects, belong to diverse genres and are written in different scripts. The earliest written records of English are inscriptions on hard material made in a special alphabet known as the runes. The word rune originally meant ‘secret’, ‘mystery’ and hence came to denote inscriptions believed to be magic. Later the word "rune" was applied to the characters used in writing these inscriptions.

There is no doubt that the art of runic writing was known to the Germanic tribes long before they came to Britain, since runic inscrip­tions have also been found in Scandinavia (see §38). The runes were used as letters, each symbol to indicate a separate sound. Besides, a rune could also represent a word beginning with that sound and was called by that word, e.g. the rune denoting the sound [θ] and [ð] was called "thorn" and could stand for OE porn (NE thorn); the runes stood for [w] and [f] and were called wynn ‘joy’ and feoh ‘cattle’ (NE fee).

In some inscriptions the runes were found arranged in a fixed order making a sort of alphabet. After the first six letters this alphabet is called futhark .

The runic alphabet is a specifically Germanic alphabet, not to be found in languages of other groups. The letters are angular; straight lines are preferred, curved lines avoided; this is due to the fact that runic inscriptions were cut in hard material: stone, bone or wood. The shapes of some letters resemble those of Greek or Latin, others have not been traced to any known alphabet, and the order of the runes in the alphabet is certainly original. To this day the origin of the runes is a matter of conjecture.

The number of runes in different OG languages varied. As compared to continental, the number of runes in England was larger: new runes were added as new sounds appeared in English (from 28 to 33 runes in Britain against 16 or 24 on the continent).

Neither on the mainland nor in Britain were the runes ever used for everyday writing or for putting down poetry and prose works. Their main function was to make short inscriptions on objects, often to bestow on them some special power or magic.

§ 103. The two best known runic inscriptions in England are the earliest extant OE written records. One of them is an inscription on a box called the "Franks Casket", the other is a short text on a stone cross in Dumfriesshire near the village of Ruthwell known as the "Ruthwell Cross". Both records are in the Northumbrian dialect.

Agate ring with runic inscription (1/1).

The Franks Casket was discovered in the early years of the 19th c. in France, and was presented to the British Museum by a British archeologist. A. W. Franks, The Casket is a small box made of whale bone; its four sides are carved: there are pictures in the centre and runic inscriptions around. The longest among them, in alliterative verse, tells the story of the whale bone, of which the Casket is made.

The Ruthwell Cross is a 15ft tall stone cross inscribed and ornamented on all sides. The principal inscription has been reconstructed into a passage from an OE religious poem, THE DREAM OF THE ROOD, which was also found in another version ina later manuscript.

Many runic inscriptions have been preserved on weapons, coins, amulets, tombstones, rings, various cross fragments. Some runic inser­tions occur in OE manuscripts written in Latin characters. The total number of runic inscriptions in OE is about forty; the last of them be­long to the end of the OE period.

Old English Manuscripts

§ 104. Our knowledge of the OE language comes mainly from manu­scripts written in Latin characters. Like elsewhere in Western Europe Latin in England was the language of the church and also the language of writing and education. The monks were practically the only literate people; they read and wrote Latin and therefore began to use Latin letters to write down English words. Like the scribes of other countries, British scribes modified the Latin script to suit their needs: they changed the shape of some letters, added new symbols to indicate sounds, for which Latin had no equivalents, attached new sound values to Latin letters.

§ 105. The first English words to be written down with the help of Latin characters were personal names and place names inserted in Latin texts; then came glosses and longer textual insertions.

All over the country, in the kingdoms of England, all kinds of legal documents were written and copied. At first they were made in Latin, with English names and place-names spelt by means of Latin letters, later they were also written in the local dialects. Many documents have survived onsingle sheets or have been copied into large manuscripts: various wills, grants, deals of purchase, agreements, proceedings of church councils, laws, etc. Most of them are now commonly known under the general heading of "Anglo-Saxon Charters"; the earliest are in Kentish and Mercian (8-9th c.);later laws and charters are written in West Saxon though they do not necessarily come from Wessex: "West Saxon as the written form of language was used in different regions.

Glosses to the Gospels and other religious texts were made inmany English monasteries, for the benefit of those who did not know enough Latin. Their chronology is uncertain but, undoubtedly, they constitute early samples of written English. We may mention the Corpus and Epinal glossaries in the 8th c. Mercian, consisting of words to the Latin text arranged alphabetically, the interlinear glosses to the Lindisfarne Gospels: separate words and word-for-word translations scribbled be­tween the Latin lines of beautifully ornamented manuscripts, and the glosses in the Durham Ritual, both in the 10th c. Northumbrian; and also the Rushworth Gospels in Mercian and Northumbrian of the same century.

§ 106. Among the earliest insertions in Latin texts are pieces of OE poetry. Bede's HISTORIA ECCLESIASTICA GENTIS ANGLO-RUM (written in Latin in the 8th c.) contains an English fragment of five lines known as "Bede's Death Song" and a religious poem of nine lines, "Cædmon's Hymn".

OE poetry constitutes a most precious literary relic and quite a substantial portion of the records in the vernacular. All in all we have about 30,000 lines of OE verse from many poets of some three centuries. The names of the poets are unknown except Cædmon and Cynewulf, two early Northumbrian authors.

OE poetry is mainly restricted to three subjects: heroic, religious and lyrical. It is believed that many OE poems, especially those dealing with heroic subjects, were composed a long time before they were written down; they were handed down from generation to generation in oral form. Perhaps, they were first recorded in Northumbria some time in the 8th c, but have survived only in West Saxon copies made a long time after­wards — the 10th or 11th c.

The greatest poem of the time was BEOWULF, an epic of the 7th or 8th c. It was originally composed in the Mercian or Northumbrian dialect, but has come down to us in a 10th c. West Saxon copy. It is valued both as a source of linguistic material and as a work of art; it is the oldest poem in Germanic literature. BEOWULF is built up of several songs arranged in three chapters (over 3,000 lines in all). It is based on old legends about the tribal life of the ancient Teutons. The author (unknown) depicts vividly the adventures and fights of legendary heroes some of which can be traced to historical events.

In the 10th c., when the old heroic verses were already declining, some new war poems were composed and inserted in the prose historical chronicles: THE BATTLE OF BRUNANBURH, THE BATTLE OF MALDON. They bear resemblance to the ancient heroic poems but deal with contemporary events: the wars with the Scots, the Picts and the raiders from Scandinavia.

Another group of poems are OE elegiac (lyrical) poems: W1DSITH ("The Traveller's Song"), THE WANDERER, THE SEAFARER, and others. THE WANDERER depicts the sorrows and bereavement of a poet in exile: he laments the death of his protectors and friends and expresses his resignation to the gloomy fate. THE SEAFARER is con­sidered to be the most original of the poems; it gives a mournful picture of the dark northern seas and sings joy at the return of the spring. Most of those poems are ascribed to Cynewulf.

Religious poems paraphrase, more or less closely, the books of the Bible — GENESIS, EXODUS (written by Cædmon). ELENE, ANDREAS, CHRIST, FATE OF THE APOSTLES tell the life-stories of apostles and saints or deal with various subjects associated with the Gospels (e.g. in the DREAM OF THE ROOD, the tree of which the cross was made tells its story from the time it was cut to the crucifixion of Christ; extracts from this poem were carved in runes on the Ruthwell

§ 107. OE poetry is characterised by a specific system of versifi­cation and some peculiar stylistic devices. Practically all of it is written in the OG alliterative verse: the lines are not rhymed and the number of the syllables in a line is free, only the number of stressed syllables being fixed. The line is divided into two halves with two strongly stressed syllables in each half and is bound together by the use of the same sound at the beginning of at least two stressed syllables in the line.

Here is the beginning of BEOWULF arranged in lines with stressed syllables and alliterating sounds italicized:

Hwæt wē ʒār-Dena in ʒēardaʒum

"Lo, we of the spear-Danes in yore-days

pēodcyninʒa prym ʒefrunon

of the(ir) folk-kings the fame have heard

hu pa æpelinʒas ellen fremedon

how the nobly-descended (ones) deeds of valour wrought."

The style of OE poetry is marked by the wide use of metaphorical phrases or compounds describing the qualities or functions of the thing; e.g. OE heapu-swat — ‘war-sweat’ for blood, OE breost-hord— ‘breasthoaid’ for thought (see also § 278). This kind of metaphor naturally led to the composition of riddles, another peculiar production of OE poetry. (Some riddles contain descriptions of nature; many riddles de­scribe all kinds of everyday objects in roundabout terms and make a sort of encyclopedia of contemporary life; for instance, the riddle of the shield which describes its sufferings on the battle-field; of an ox-horn used as a trumpet and as a drinking cup: a swan, a cuckoo, a book­worm (see text 5 in Appendix).

§ 108. OE prose is a most valuable source of information for the history of the language. The earliest samples of continuous prose are the first pages of the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLES: brief annals of the year's happenings made at various monasteries. In the 9th c. the chronicles were unified at Winchester, the capital of Wessex. Though sometimes dropped or started again, the Chronicles developed into a fairly complete prose history of England; the Winchester annals were copied and continued in other monasteries.

Several versions of the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLES have sur­vived. Having no particular literary value they are of greatest interest to the philologist, as they afford a closer approach to spoken OE than OE poetry or prose translations from Latin; the style lacks conciseness, the syntax is primitive, for it reflects faithfully the style of oral narration.

Literary prose does not really begin until the 9th c. which witnessed a flourishing of learning and literature in Wessex during King Alfred's reign. The flourishing is justly attributed to King Alfred and a group of scholars he had gathered at his court at Winchester. An erudite himself, Alfred realised that culture could reach the people only in their own tongue. He translated from Latin books on geography, history and philosophy, popular at the time. One of his most important contribu­tions is the West Saxon version of Orosius's World History (HISTO-R1ARUM ADVERSUS PAGANOS LlBRI SEPTEM "Seven books of history against the heathens"). It abounds in deviations from the orig­inal, expansions and insertions, which make it the more interesting; he included there a full description of the lands where Germanic languages were spoken; two accounts of voyages: one made by Ohfhere, a Nor­wegian, who had sailed along the coast of Scandinavia into the White Sea (some passages from this account are quoted in § 113); another by Wulfstan, a Dane, who had travelled round the Baltic Sea. Alfred's (or his associates') other translations were a book of instruction for parish priests PASTORAL CARE (CURA PASTORALIS) by Pope Gregory the Great; the famous philosophical treatise ON THE CONSOLA­TION OF PHILOSOPHY (DE CONSOLATIONE PHILOSOPHISE) by Eoethius, a Roman philosopher and statesman. Bede's ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE, written about a hundred and fifty years before, was first rendered in English in Alfred's time, if not by Alfred himself.

By the 10th c. the West Saxon dialect had firmly established itself as the written form of English. The (wo important 10th c. writers are Ælfric and Wulfstan; they wrote in a form of Late West Saxon which is believed to have considerably deviated from spoken West Saxon and to have developed into a somewhat artificial bookish language.

Ælfric was the most outstanding writer of the later OE period. He produced a series of homilies to be used by the clergy during a year's service; the LIVES OF THE SAINTS written in alliterative metrical prose. He was the first to translate from Latin some parts of the Bible. Of especial interest are his textbooks: the COLLOQUIUM, which is a series of dialogues written as a manual for boys at a monastic school in Winchester and a LATIN GRAMMAR giving OE equivalents of Latin forms and constructions. The grammar shows the author's great ingenuity in devising English grammatical terms by means of transla­tion-loans (see § 245).

Wulfstan, the second prominent late West Saxon author, was Arch­bishop of York in the early 11th c. He is famous for his collections of passionate sermons known as the HOMILIES.

§ 109. It was many hundred years later that scholars began to take an interest in older Forms of the language and turned their attention to the old manuscripts- In the 17th c. Franciscus Junius, of Holland, accomplished an enormous amount of work in the study of early written records in OG tongues. He published the Gothic Gospels and a number of OE texts. Later, in the 18th and 19th c, many more OE texts were discovered; they were published in facsimile editions, and in the more modern English script, with commentary and translations. Most of the OE written material is kept in the British Museum; some of it is scat­tered elsewhere. A valuable manuscript of Bede's ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY dated in the year 746 is preserved in the Leningrad Public Library; the Latin text contains OE personal names, place-names and an early version of Cædmon's famous hymn in the Northumbrian dialect.


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